The world of Japanese animation has its rock stars like any other art form—Hayao Miyazaki, Hideaki Anno, Satoshi Kon—and likewise, it also has its artists that have managed to somehow maintain a level of obscurity despite being prolific in their field. Kenji Kamiyama is one such figure.
He has had a hand in many of the great success stories in anime, and been directly responsible for others, and yet he’s not a household name like Miyazaki or Kon. Whether that’s by design on his part or just how it can be sometimes with art, recognition, and fame, Kenji Kamiyama is a juggernaut in his field without appearing to be so until you take a closer look at his credentials.
Born in 1966, Kamiyama grew up with an appreciation for sci-fi, especially Star Wars and Mobile Suit Gundam, and that led him to Studio Fuga at the age of nineteen. He worked on background art during his time there, slowly honing his craft until he could prove he had the chops to move up the ladder to a more well-known studio. In the 1990’s he made the jump to Production I.G., one of the most prolific and well-respected companies in the business.
During his time there, he became the mentee of director Mamoru Oshii, famous in the anime world for translating Masamune Shirow’s iconic Ghost in the Shell, to the big screen in 1995’s critically acclaimed hit of the same name. This relationship with Oshii would in many ways become the lynchpin of Kamiyama’s own career, although perhaps he didn’t know it at the time.
Movies and TV Shows of Kenji Kamiyama
During his time at Studio Fuga in the 1980s, Kamiyama cut his teeth working on backgrounds for Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service. Looking back on that through the lens of history, it’s difficult to imagine a more auspicious beginning to one’s career.
His eventual move to Production I.G. to work under Mamoru Oshii eventually led to Kamiyama directing the TV anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which at the time was a tall order. Oshii’s 1995 film was an instant classic and a faithful adaptation of an equally classic manga.
Perhaps the fact that Kamiyama was making a TV anime instead of a film helped him step out from Oshii’s shadow, or perhaps it was their friendly rival-mentor relationship that drove him on, but whatever the case, Kamiyama managed what many would have said was impossible with 2002’s Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
He managed to match and even surpass the prestige of his mentor’s film, such that these days Ghost in the Shell exists in a trio of beloved formats that are equally as likely to catch the attention of first-time readers or viewers. His first season was followed by the equally impressive Ghost in the Shell: S.A.C. 2ND GIG, and these series and their success cemented him as a brilliant director, constituting a considerable level-up for his career.
In 2006 he left off on his work within Ghost in the Shell universe, moving onto two new TV anime series in the coming years: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit in 2007 and Eden of the East in 2009. Both were significant departures from the tone and style of his work with Ghost in the Shell, but he managed them with impressive skill.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is a story that is fantasy to its core, and markedly different from the dark cyberpunk that is Ghost in the Shell. It centers not on science, technology, and philosophical questions of personhood, but on legends, traditions, and relationships.
It follows a wandering warrior named Balsa who has vowed to atone for the misdeeds of her past, and in doing so becomes the bodyguard of a young prince named Chagum, fleeing for his life from his own father. The series is a more personal exploration of character than Ghost in the Shell, although both series take care to develop their cast.
As different as it was from Kamiyama’s previous work, he pulled it off with apparent ease, and the series is something of a cult hit—not as popular as Ghost in the Shell but recognized as an exemplary piece of art in the medium.
His next project, Eden of the East, and it was as big of a departure from Moribito as Moribito was from Ghost in the Shell. Eden of the East is both a comedy and a thriller, which feels like an oddball combination, but Kamiyama once again proved himself a deft hand at navigating all sorts of thematic terrain.
The story takes place in a near-future version of Japan where the world is being remade in a sort of game, all according to the whims of twelve people known as Seleção, who are provided with literally billions of yen and the instructions to save Japan in whatever way they deem necessary.
It’s an off-the-wall concept on some level, but on another it allowed Kamiyama to examine some issues that had been on his mind for a long time, specifically the recluse culture of Japanese youth who refuse to leave their homes, specifically called hikikomori in Japanese and more loosely known as NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) elsewhere in the world.
The result is an anime that’s as thoughtful as it is humorous, and Eden of the East proved popular enough to warrant two movies, King of Eden in 2009 and Paradise Lost in 2010.
Eden of the East: King of Eden by Kenji Kamiyama picks up with the same characters and story six months after the end of the anime, and Paradise Lost takes place immediately after the end of King of Eden.
It’s a testament to the popularity and sheer density of the original East of Eden anime series that it got (and needed ) two movies to conclude the story, considering that most of Kamiyama’s work has been in television over the years.
The Range of Kenji Kamiyama
While Kamiyama has worked on at least a dozen well-known projects, such as Blood: The Last Vampire and the 2019 Ultraman, Ghost in the Shell, Moribito, and Eden of the East are the three that represent the breadth of his skill and the success of his career.
They stand at triangle points to one another, sometimes overlapping in certain themes or character archetypes, but on the whole so different from one another that viewers come away with the feeling that Kamiyama is something of an anime renaissance man—he can do it all and do it well.
Recently Kamiyama has been working on a new Ghost in the Shell series and Bladerunner: Black Lotus, both with fellow director Shinji Aramaki. Details are sparse regarding both of the new series, but when it comes to Kanji Kamiyama, it’s safe to say they’re in good hands.